|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2009||[Print without images]|
|After losing in five games to the Nuggets, Byron Scott's Hornets have a lot of questions.|
You could probably pump out 58 questions about the suddenly uncertain future of the New Orleans Hornets after watching last season's Western Conference darlings last for a mere five games in these playoffs.
Yet we've decided to cap it at five after the banged-up Hornets hung in for a half Wednesday night before the brutish Denver Nuggets pulled away for 107-86 spanking that, combined with Monday's utter destruction, brought a humbling end to New Orleans' season.
The most pressing questions:
What must Chris Paul be thinking?
That's the same question you wanted to ask Chris Paul in February after the Hornets tried to trade away Tyson Chandler in a deal mostly motivated by finances. Except that you undoubtedly wanted to ask it even louder after the Nuggets manhandled New Orleans in this first-round rout.
Unfortunately, no one in the interview room in Denver on Wednesday night saw fit to ask Paul -- with the max contract extension he signed last summer due to kick in next season -- for his reaction to the Hornets' early exit or the housecleaning around him many anticipate in response.
The reality, though, is that Paul is highly unlikely to blast Hornets owner George Shinn in public for wanting to cut costs. Those who know Paul best insist that, even privately, it's not his habit to throw ultimatums at management. It appears, then, that the 23-year-old will give management a chance to convince him that it has a plan to restore New Orleans to the mix of teams contending for the West title, difficult as it is at the moment to picture such a plan.
Things could always change, but Paul declined an opportunity to voice any concern when we caught up to him late in the regular season. Asked specifically if he still sees his long-term future with the Hornets after the near-trade of Chandler, Paul said: "Most definitely."
Yet it's been an undeniably rough season in spite of Paul's sparkling regular-season production. For all the claims that San Antonio's window of contention has closed, it looks as though these Hornets, as currently constructed, already missed out on their best opportunity to go far in the playoffs when they routed the Spurs three times in last season's second round before losing a Game 7 at home.
It's worth noting, furthermore, that Paul was hurting in this Denver series more than he ever let on. On top of dealing with the Nuggets' physical defense, Paul banged his knee in a Game 3 collision with Anthony Carter and apparently needed pain medication over the weekend to keep playing. Not that he ever discussed that publicly, either.Who will the Hornets try to trade first?
You'll recall that Tyson Chandler, with two seasons left on his contract at a total of $25.5 million, was dealt to Oklahoma City in February, only for the Thunder to rescind the trade one day later because of concerns about a long-standing toe condition. The general assumption around the league is that the Hornets remain eager to slash payroll and will try again to move Chandler this offseason.
I also get the distinct feeling that Chandler wouldn't be opposed to starting out fresh somewhere else after his return to the Hornets, when subsequent attempts to play on a left foot that wouldn't cooperate proved so frustrating.
The obstacle, though, is that concerns about Chandler's long-term health are no longer exclusive to the Thunder. I've heard the suggestion more than once in recent days that the Hornets -- if they can find a team interested in stealing the 26-year-old from a team desperate to shed long-term salary obligations -- might not be able to do better than Denver did last summer when it dumped Marcus Camby's contract to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Nuggets, remember, gave Camby away for the mere option of trading second-round picks in 2010, agreeing to such a marginal return because the Clips had the cap space and willingness to absorb Camby's contract.
One rival executive, contacted Wednesday night, said he expected the Hornets to try to trade James Posey first after the four-year, $25 million deal New Orleans used to lure Posey away from the defending champs in Boston didn't make the Hornets any deeper. But at 32 years old and with three more seasons left on his contract, Posey's quiet season could keep interest in him minimal despite his past contributions to title teams in Miami and Boston.
With concerns about Peja Stojakovic's long-term health almost certainly ruling him out as a trade candidate, David West might have to be the one who goes in a first rebuilding step, hard as that is to imagine after the 28-year-old earned his second straight trip to the All-Star Game this season.
The problem? If the mandate from Shinn is that the Hornets have to cut costs before they can start trying to reshape the roster around Paul -- as Denver did by dumping Camby's salary and then trading Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups -- who on New Orleans' roster is easier to move than West?
"You know what?" Hornets coach Byron Scott told reporters in Denver following Wednesday night's elimination. "We'll address all that when we have to."
What is Scott's future in New Orleans?
The initial indications, from a few sources plugged into NBA coaching circles, suggest that Scott is not in any immediate danger of losing his job.
One Western Conference executive we spoke said that a 58-point humiliation in your final home playoff game is the "type of loss that gets everything from management to coaches to players questioned." In the words of Michael Wilbon on ESPN's "Pardon The Interruption" earlier this week: "This seems like it's a franchise-changing defeat."
But Scott -- after winning 105 games over the past two seasons -- is also scheduled to make $5 million-plus next season in the final season of his contract. That would appear to be too much for the cash-strapped Hornets to swallow by firing him and too much for Scott to walk away from.
Sources say Sacramento would be quick to call Scott in for an interview if he were on the open market, given his ties to the franchise after a two-year stint as a Kings assistant and Scott's subsequent success in New Jersey and New Orleans, which include last season's NBA Coach of the Year trophy.
But Scott is popular in New Orleans and has forged what is habitually described as a good relationship with Paul. With the Hornets widely assumed to be looking to make big changes to the roster if they can swing them, there's a case to be made for keeping the coach and point guard in place as the two-man base for starting over.
How many Hornets will have offseason surgery?
Doesn't it seem as though we've spent at least half our time this season talking about who's hurt? That's how it feels at Stein Line HQ, and that's certainly how it must feel for the Hornets, who have been impacted by the NBA's suffocating injury plague of 2008-09 as much as anyone.
You have the big names who have been unable to play at all in the playoffs, such as Kevin Garnett, Manu Ginobili, Jameer Nelson, Elton Brand and Tracy McGrady. You have the top guns who are trying to play through the pain, such as Dwyane Wade, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Josh Howard and Ben Gordon. You also have a growing group of players who have hobbled away since the playoffs started, such as Leon Powe, Dikembe Mutombo, Luke Walton and this week's victims, Courtney Lee and Al Horford.
And then you have the Hornets, whose top five players are all ailing. Which means there really might be a line at the offseason operating table.
Chandler skipped Wednesday's Game 5 after it became clear he never should have been playing in the first place, after hobbling around so ineffectively for four games on his bad left foot. Peja Stojakovic's chronic back problem is as stubborn as ever, and West's back has been noticeably tight, too. Throw in Posey's knee and elbow issues and Paul's bad knee, and New Orleans' struggles to stay competitive in this series become a bit more understandable, given its well-chronicled lack of a bench.
After his team's series-ending defeat Wednesday night, Scott swore that he's actually "more proud of them this year than I was last year" because the Hornets managed to win 49 games and get back to the playoffs despite all the health setbacks.
What's the worst thing about losing a playoff game by 58 points?
It's not just that the Hornets folded so meekly and early at home, which is sufficiently unforgivable.
Or that they also lost games to the Nuggets by 29, 15 and 21 points.
It's that the Hornets unashamedly quit so quickly in Game 4 after fans in New Orleans showed up this season with greater regularity than the team could have ever dreamed, shaming misinformed know-it-alls like me who kept telling you that local residents couldn't possibly invest their time and money into something as trivial as rooting for the local basketball team while still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
The Hornets consistently played at near capacity in a building that holds 17,188, selling out well more than half their games. It seems that we were all wrong about the post-Katrina viability of NBA basketball in the Crescent City.
Not nearly as wrong, though, as foisting the unspeakable score of Nuggets 121, Hornets 63 on a ridiculously loyal fan base in their farewell 'til next season.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.